Gifts Galore: ‘Easy Living,’ With Jean Arthur and a Coat From the Heavens

A sable fur coat lands on a young stenographer riding in the upper deck of an open-top Fifth Avenue bus. A turbaned passenger calls it “kismet,” but the Depression-era romantic farce “Easy Living” isn’t so much about fate as the fantasy of getting something for nothing.

Released in 1937, toward the end of the screwball comedy cycle inaugurated three years earlier with “It Happened One Night,” “Easy Living” has risen in critical favor over the decades. Consider it a seasonal gift, revived for a week at Film Forum in an excellent 35-millimeter print.

Screwball comedies are typically populated by madcap socialites, irate plutocrats, plucky working girls, comic servants, idiotic lounge lizards and English-mangling foreigners. All are present in this film directed by Mitchell Leisen from Preston Sturges’s script. The fur coat (priced at $58,000, approximately a cool million dollars today) that falls from heaven on the head of Mary (Jean Arthur) belongs to the spendthrift wife of a blustering tycoon known as the Bull of Broad Street (Edward Arnold).

While the original story, by the Hollywood leftist Vera Caspary, had Mary steal the coat, Sturges downplays class conflict, delivering something out of the Arabian Nights. The Bull hurled the coat off his terrace in a ludicrous domestic spat. When honest Mary, an employee of a youth magazine called The Boy’s Constant Companion, tries to return it, he makes it a present, along with a matching fur hat. Mary is assumed to be the Bull’s mistress but romantic interest is supplied by his ne’er-do-well son, Johnny (Ray Milland), a sleek twerp introduced wearing an ascot at breakfast.

Announcing itself with neon Art Deco titles and stocked with mock Erté sculptures, “Easy Living” has some notable sets and set pieces devised by Leisen. A trained architect, he also manages to engineer a way in which Johnny and Mary can spend the night together (lying head-to-head) without violating the Hollywood Production Code.

Garrulous bit players include Franklin Pangborn as a querulous milliner, William Demarest as a gravel-voiced gossip columnist, and Luis Alberni, who employs a vaudeville Jewish-Italian accent to deliver fanciful colloquialisms like “I don’t beat around the bush to come in the backdoor.” His character is the owner of an upscale Midtown hotel; assuming Mary is being kept by his creditor, the Bull, he offers her the most deluxe suite.

Alberni gets the comic lines but the movie belongs to Arthur. Remembered for her charmingly cracked voice and the acerbic, girl-next-door career gals she played in Frank Capra’s “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936) and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939), Arthur imbues Mary with a sly, feisty innocence. The sequence in which her benefactor attempts to mansplain the principle of compound interest is a small gem of verbal fencing. Reveling in her new coat, Mary is oblivious to a mounting hubbub of disapproval as she swans through the Boy’s Constant Companion office as if accepting an Oscar.

The New York Times movie critic Frank S. Nugent wrote that “Easy Living” didn’t “make much sense” and was “incredibly reminiscent of those old custard pie and Keystone chase days.” True. Leisen signals his intentions early with a pratfall that sends the Bull hurtling down a staircase. It is the movie’s interpolated slapstick — along with Arthur and the enormous geranium-shaped bathtub in which she and Milland are planted — that give it distinction.

The classic scene has a penniless Mary wrapped in her fabulous fur scouring a Manhattan automat for cheap eats. Hoping to earn his own way, Johnny is there employed as a bus boy. Past the inevitable meet-cute, the scene builds to a sight-gag in which all the dispensing machines open at once precipitating a free food riot worthy of slapstick masters like Mack Sennett or Blake Edwards: Something for nothing!

Along with “Easy Living,” Film Forum is showing a 1938 Paramount animation, “Sally Swing,” in which Betty Boop, in the twilight of her career as a college administrator, introduces a new cartoon character. The school janitress Sally Swing trucks and scats her way to campus stardom but vintage jitterbug moves notwithstanding, the cartoon was most likely chosen for the climactic scene in which a cap and gown descend upon her from on high.

Rewind is an occasional column covering revived, restored and rediscovered movies playing in New York’s repertory theaters.

Easy Living
Dec. 28 through Jan. 3 at Film Forum, Manhattan; 212-727-8110,

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